The Cat and the Brocaded Bag: Using Metaphor
Analysis to Computationally Process Creatively
Modified Idioms
Sylvia Weber Russell
, Ingrid Fischer
and Ricarda Dormeyer
Department of Computer Science, University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824, USA
ALTANA Chair of Bioinformatics and Information Mining, University of Konstanz, Box
M712, 78457 Konstanz, Germany
imbus AG, Kleinseebacher Str. 9, 91096 M
ohrendorf, Germany
Abstract. Theories and computational models of natural language understand-
ing that handle idioms generally circumvent the question of novel modifications
to idioms. Yet such variations are prevalent in the media. This paper addresses the
perhaps most challenging type of idiom variation, i.e., variation of decomposable
idioms through nontrivial metaphoric modifications in the source domain, i.e.,
the domain of the words of the idiom in their literal senses. An existing metaphor
representation system is used as a basis for interpreting such idioms.
1 Introduction
“...from p. 269 on, she lets the ideological cat out of the brocaded bag of prose.
expression is characterized by rich metaphoric modification, especially through exten-
sion of ‘brocaded’ from its source domain as an attribute of the (physical) ‘bag’ to its
target domain as an attribute of the (mental) ‘prose. Many such metaphorically based
variations can be found in ordinary prosaic texts:
(1) starts to feel the upwind in the sails of his customers
(2) blows fresh wind into the slack sails of the church
(3) The cat hopped completely out of the bag
(4) The education director did not yet let the cat out of the bag,
but [did let out] at least the head
(5) He lets the cat out of the bag, which is supposed to eat the bad rats
(6) He lets the cat at least peek out of the bag
(7) The cat unfortunately escaped out of the bag
(8) However, the public only got to see the tail [of the cat]
(9) He let the cat partly out of the Christmas grab bag
(10) They are always rubbing salt and pepper into their open wounds
The examples in this section are (translations) taken from the COSMAS corpus at the Univer-
sity of Mannheim, Germany
Weber Russell S., Fischer I. and Dormeyer R. (2007).
The Cat and the Brocaded Bag: Using Metaphor Analysis to Computationally Process Creatively Modified Idioms.
In Proceedings of the 4th International Workshop on Natural Language Processing and Cognitive Science, pages 27-37
DOI: 10.5220/0002424500270037
These metaphorically based, decomposable idiom variations
are less easily ana-
lyzed than some other variations of the same class, such as: variations of verbs involving
an unmodified inference or effect (The cat is out of the bag [1–4]); target domain modi-
fications of nouns, which need no analysis as word sense extensions (...federally-funded
wing [5]); quantification and other modifications seen as applicable to both source and
target domains (he stirred up three hornets’ nests); insertion of a temporal verb (he often
stirred up a hornet’s nest); and purely syntactic changes (a hornet’s nest was stirred up).
(See [6] for a theoretical and computational treatment of syntactic flexibility.) These do
not provide the richness of the above examples.
“Creative” is of course not a well-defined term in the interdisciplinary literature.
More narrowly characterized, the above examples can be considered to be instances of
novel, semantically transparent (retroactively or not), idiom-internal, semantic source-
domain variations of decomposable, analyzable, metaphorically motivated idioms (with
or without “word play”). How is a computer program to understand such creative vari-
This paper builds on the implemented method of Dormeyer, Fischer and Russell
[4] in proposing a systematic way of computationally processing this arguably most
interesting type of variation, as represented by our introductory example. We use an ap-
proach that we find necessary for any kind of novel metaphor, namely metaphor analysis
based on the semantics of the metaphorically used word(s). We make no claims about
human processing of idioms here, which in any case does not yet have a strong con-
sensus [7,8]. However, interdisciplinary research has shown that many idioms are com-
positional and analyzable, with metaphoric links between source and target domains
playing a role in their human interpretation [9–11]. The metaphor-analytic approach
we use is also consistent with psycholinguistic evidence that the literal meanings of at
least some of the words of a decomposable idiom and of its variations play a role in its
interpretation [12,13, 6].
The following section summarizes the metaphor analysis method used. In the suc-
ceeding section, the computational interpretation process, with a focus on the relevant
representations, is outlined for several examples of source domain modifications. This
is followed by an analysis of our introductory example, based on our existing set of
metaphor representation components.
2 Metaphor Interpretation
A linguistic metaphor is a linguistic expression in which one or more concepts under-
lying a piece of text is extended from one semantic context (source domain), to an-
other (target domain), on the basis of some perceived or imposed similarity between the
source and target expressions. The task of a text understanding system that encounters
a metaphor consists of detecting the metaphor and finding an interpretation in terms of
the target domain.
The approach used here for interpretation of metaphoric variations of idioms is that
of MAP [14, 15]. This approach is consistent with our assumption that a metaphoric
The designation “decomposable. here does not exclude the idea that some parts of the idiom
have meaning only for the idiom as a whole.
usage of a word (at least at some point in its evolution) is based on semantic knowledge
of the word in its so-called literal or source domain sense. Only the idiom-relevant ideas
of the metaphor analysis are presented here. For a particular literal sense of a verb or of
an adjective of a certain class, the working assumption is that certain components of its
underlying concept are always extended to (i.e., present in) a metaphoric interpretation.
(This does not necessarily imply that humans continue to make these extensions from
the literal meaning for partially or completely “frozen” usages. However, our compu-
tational process can and does treat frozen usages as extensions “from scratch.”) Rep-
resenting this knowledge in the lexicon in terms of extensible components is therefore
critical for the computer interpretation of metaphoric text.
The determination of what can be metaphorically extended from the action or state
represented by a verb is guided by the hypothesis that a purpose of metaphor is to call
attention to an effect on someone. Recognition of this effect can be represented as an
inference, implication or result proceeding from the verbal concept. For example, for
the verb ‘to sow,’ the effect is that its object is in another location:
(11) ...a fertile intellectual soil in which Freud sowed his ideas. [16]
In keeping with this consideration, the extensible part of a verb definition includes the
following parts relevant to our discussion:
1. An abstract structure that separates causation (if relevant) from an effected (resul-
tant) state.
2. Embedded (evaluative or emotional) effects on particular entities, whether part of
the definition of an attribute, such as NEGATIVE for pain, or a subjective connota-
tion, such as POSITIVE for ‘breeze’ and NEGATIVE for ‘draft.
3. A small set of “conceptual
features” applicable to both literal and metaphorical
These “abstract” components are those which apply to both the source and target do-
mains. We also need to indicate the nature of the target domain and, if a target domain
paraphrase is desired, how to interpret these components in the target domain. To im-
plement this observation, a set of four (nonextensible) high-level conceptual domains:
PHYSICAL, MENTAL, SENSORY, and CONTROL, is recognized, each with a further sub-
level of categorization. The objects of these domains are nouns such as bag, story, sight,
and privilege, respectively. Verbs and adjectives in these domains are illustrated by to
sweep, small; to think, intelligent; to watch, beautiful; and to buy, wealthy.
Given such representations in the lexicon, “understanding” a phrase that contains
a metaphorically used verb involves retrieving the representation of the verb in terms
of the above components, together with the target domain, which is determined by the
object noun of the phrase or simple sentence in which it occurs. In example (11), the
metaphorically used verb sow occurs in conjunction with the literally used direct object
‘ideas’; the metaphoric use is recognized through the difference in domains for the verb
and direct object, namely, PHYSICAL vs. MENTALINTELLECTUAL. The difference in
conceptual domain indicated by ’intellectual’ triggers a metaphorical interpretation in
in a sense similar to that of Schank [17]
the domain of the object. To support this kind of processing, each noun must be defined
in the lexicon in terms of its conceptual domain, and each verb with its domain in its
literal sense. As ‘sow’ is literally ‘to cause things to be in another location, a minimal
literal paraphrase of (11) resulting from transfer of the abstract structure of ‘sow’ to the
target domain is ‘Freud caused his ideas to be in the minds of others.
While previous knowledge of metaphors may be built into the system (Martin [18])
the described approach need not rely on such knowledge; rather, like humans trying to
understand a metaphor they have not previously encountered, it relies only on knowl-
edge of definitions which can be retrieved from the lexicon. Thus there are no lexical-
ized metaphors in this system; conventional and novel metaphors are treated the same
3 Idiom Interpretation
Recognition of idioms has received much interdisciplinary attention [7]. The present
discussion focuses on the problem of interpretation of metaphoric expressions already
hypothesized as idioms.
In applying our method of metaphor processing to metaphorically modified idioms,
we have somewhat of a head start. Given the basic idiom, for example, we can identify
key words of the idiom. (Pulman [2] discusses the extent to which the presence of cer-
tain lexical items points to a particular idiom.) For he let the cat out of the bag, ‘cat’
always represents a ‘secret’ (which would not of course be discernible independently
of the idiom). Furthermore, the target domain is always a mental one, regardless of the
nature of the secret. In the lexicon, each idiomatic entry can therefore be provided with
both its literal source domain and its idiomatic target domain, as well as the mapping
between them. Moreover, we know what the general interpretation of the basic form of
an idiom is. Therefore we can enter any inference which generates this interpretation
into the extensible representation of the idiom. As our basic idiom is decomposable,
parts of it may be modified to vary the “picture” called up by the basic idiom. The pro-
gram can then base its interpretation of variations of idioms on metaphoric extension
from this inference. We need not deal with the multitude of inferences which might pro-
ceed from this sentence if intended literally. For example, the relevant inference of let
the cat out of the bag, which generates the interpretation that a secret is known, is that if
the cat is out of the bag, people can see it. This allows us to implement isomorphic cor-
respondences between states underlying the literal verb representations with inference
states that can then be expressed metaphorically (illustrated in Fig. 1).
In our previous work [4], feature structure representations for let the cat out of the
bag and rub salt into someone’s [weeping] wounds were used in an implementation of
idiom modeling. In this paper the representational framework of that approach is used
to show how interpretation of various richer source domain modifications of let the cat
out of the bag can be processed in a non-ad hoc fashion. The more “creative” usages
will be those that need interpretation of novel metaphor.
Because of the perceived analogy between literal and metaphoric interpretations
of idioms, the meaning representations of idioms and their components are the most
critical part of the interpretation process, whatever notation is used, and are the focus
%Idiom event analyzed as causing change of state %
EVENT ((AGENT +) (VOL +| ))
% if (animate) AGENT, then VOLUNTARY or not %
% Result: %
STATEb: AT:in (OBJ:cat1 LOC:bag1)
STATEe: NOT AT (OBJ:cat1 LOC:bag1)
% Idiomatically interpreted result %
STATEe: AT (OBJ LOC:others)
% In the SENSORY-SIGHT domain, OBJ is a view
and LOC is the sight faculty of the indicated human;
OBJ is intellectual (what is thought or known)
and LOC is the intellectual faculty (mind) %
Fig.1. The representation of let the cat out of the bag.
of our interpretation approach here. The representations are in Russell’s abstract rep-
resentation language [14,15], adapted for readability. In these representations, verbs
are represented spatially in terms of OBJects, LOCations and, if relevant, AGENTs. The
DOMAIN indication applies only to the resulting STATE STRUCTURE rather than to
the CAUSE component or to the predication as a whole. Uppercase (primitive) words
are representation elements; lowercase words are instantiations. STATEb is “beginning
state” and STATEe is “end state.” Temporal relationships between components are indi-
cated (TIME) through a notation associated with Reichenbach [19], where < represents
“temporally before” and EVENT represents the time of the represented event. The
character % indicates comments. Quantification is ignored for the present purpose. In
the following subsections examples are given.
3.1 Common Variations
An entry for an idiom in the lexicon has two parts: its representation (an “abstract”
version of elements characterizing that idiom) and its interpretation, which involves
substitutions. Before proceeding to idiom modifications for which metaphor analysis is
% Result %
STATEe: AT (OBJ LOC:others)
Fig.2. Interpretation of let the cat out of the bag.
indicated, we look at the entry for an unmodified idiom and consider some of the “less
creative” variations based on this entry. Our running example is let the cat out of the
bag. Its representation is given in Fig. 1.
As with the inference postulates of Pulman [2], it is the inferred STATEs of the ba-
sic idiom representation which anchor the interpretation of modifications. For example,
the ‘cat’ being ‘out of the bag’ is linked to a fact being public (known to others), and
the ‘cat’ being ‘in the bag’ is linked to a fact being secret (not known to others). Fig. 1
can be used for both the basic idiom and for the modification consisting of extraction
of the “result” part of an idiom based on an agentive verb, i.e., the cat is out of the
bag as derived from let the cat out of the bag [4]. Result negation (the cat is [still] in
the bag) is also relatively simple. Both of these modifications are in contrast to modi-
fications that deviate from the representation STRUCTURE, which are handled flexibly,
i.e., according to their semantic extensions. Thus if there is a match between the parse
of the hypothesized idiom into its logical form (abstract representation) and either the
entire Predication STRUCTURE or its result portion, then the (abstract) interpretation
consists of the Predication STRUCTURE, with the Inference STRUCTURE replacing the
result part of the Predication STRUCTURE without the source domain (see Fig. 2). The
corresponding paraphrase of let the cat out of the bag (the “effect” part of the translation
is derived from the lexicon search for a representation corresponding to STATEe) is: do
something such that the mental (intellectual) object that was not known to others
becomes known to others.
[the cat] be out of the bag is paraphrased as: ‘be effected
that the intellectual object that was not known to others becomes known to others.
For the cat is [still] in the bag, the resulting STATEs take the following form:
(12) STATEb: AT:in (OBJ:cat1 LOC:bag1)
For readability, this paraphrase and the representation on which it is based do not include the
intention that the proposition be kept secret, or the possibility that the secret may be shared.
Of relevance to the possibility of “complete” interpretations, however, is Gibbs’ (1993) ref-
erence to experiments demonstrating that idioms cannot be expected to be equivalent to their
paraphrases, at least not as simple predications.
EVENT: ((AGENT +) (VOL +))
% STATEo means original STATE %
STATEe: AT:in (OBJ:x LOC:y)
EVENT: ((AGENT +) (VOL +))
STATEb: AT (OBJ LOC:others)
STATEe: NOT (AT (OBJ LOC:others))
Fig.3. Interpretation of put the cat back into the bag (left), The lexical entry for put back into
(agent puts x back into y) (right).
The mapping from these STATEs to their interpreted inferences again comes from the
representation of the basic idiom above, giving:
(13) STATEb: NOT (AT (OBJ LOC:others))
paraphrased as: ‘The intellectual object is not yet known to others.
3.2 More Creative Variations
The above idiom variations are interpreted solely through matches with representations
in the idiom entry itself. An example of a somewhat more creative variation involves
substituting for the verb, two examples being a near-synonym, as in [2] lay/put/spread
your cards on the table (see also [10]) and, in the present illustration, a verb representing
reversal of the action of the idiom, such as [be unable to] put/stuff the cat [back] into
the bag. Interpretation requires reference to the literal senses of the metaphorically used
The literal abstract definition of the verb construct ‘put back into’ is given in
Fig. 3.
Instantiation of the STATE structure with the input nominals ‘cat’ and ‘bag’ results
STATEe: AT:in (OBJ:cat1 LOC:bag1)
Pulman claims that there is no need for “primitives” in handling such variations. However,
some of his inferences are in terms of general categories, such as ‘location, which is closely
related to the concept of PHYSICAL CHANGE-OF-STATE
For purposes of (cross-modal) metaphor analysis, verb particles (‘back’ and ’into’) corre-
sponding to case relationships are subsumed into the verb definition.
STATEe here matches STATEb of the basic idiom Predication and therefore takes the
interpretation of STATEb in Fig.2. This STATE interpretation is then inserted into the
STATE configuration of Fig.3. The entire interpretation of to put the cat back into the
bag is shown in Fig.3 on the right. The paraphrase is then: do something such that
the intellectual object that became known to others became not known to others,
as it was originally.
The preceding modifications were “logical” in that they had to do with the pres-
ence, negation or reversal of states. More subtle modifications add components to the
verb but leave the logical result the same. In order to interpret novel modifications of
this kind in a way that makes sense, extensible components must be defined in a way
that is general for both the source and the target domains, as described in the above
section on metaphor. For example, in the case of the cat hopped out of the bag, the ab-
stract definition of ‘hop’ would include (beside the structure representing the change of
location) components representing NON-CONTINUOUS and a high SPEED. (A detailed
literal description of ‘hop’ in the lexicon - including, e.g., ‘to propel oneself upward and
land again,’ while useful for other purposes, would not necessarily lead to a meaningful
interpretation.) Using such abstract components as a guide through a discrimination net,
the program arrives at either a target domain word with the same components, if there
is one, or simply uses the target domain translation of the components themselves - in
this case, the cat came out of the bag suddenly, i.e., ‘the proposition that was not known
to others suddenly could become known to others.
3.3 Adjectival Source Domain Variations - The Brocaded Bag
The idiom variation, she lets the ideological cat out of the brocaded bag of prose,
rests on an analogical form, where the target domain concepts (‘ideology’ and ‘prose’)
are explicitly given. In accordance with the general rule for metaphoric analogical ex-
pressions, ‘X of Y > X=Y’ (cf. ‘water of life’), ‘bag’ is mapped to the (MENTAL-
INTELLECTUAL) ‘prose’ ofthe AGENT, therefore becoming the LOC of the ‘cat/ideology.
Interpreting this variation involves an analysis of a clearly novel metaphor. The reve-
lation of a secret, as usual, is inferred from the basic structure and key words of the
input phrase. From the basic idiom representation, the ‘ideological cat is revealed to
the public. The question is, what does ‘brocaded’ mean in the target domain?
The past participial adjective ‘brocaded’ represents a conceptual attribute intended
to apply to the (target domain) MENTAL OBJECT, i.e., ‘prose,’ that a human relates to in
the above STATEs. We need to show the extension of the literal sense of ‘brocaded’ to its
metaphoric sense as a descriptor of the ‘prose. Adjectives representing conceptual at-
tributes, i.e., simple properties of nominals, are defined abstractly in the lexicon in terms
of extensible conceptual features. For the PHYSICAL-domain ‘brocaded,’ one feature is
‘(COMPLEX +). Another corresponds to the word ‘beautiful, which has the feature
value ‘(EVALUATION POSITIVE). One might argue that these representation compo-
nents, which also apply to ‘fancy’ and other adjectives, are overly general. However,
Aarts and Calbert [20] found experimental support for the thesis that only evaluation
and intensity are general candidates for extension from adjectives; Osgood [21] pro-
posed evaluation, potency (intensity) and activity (cf. a COMPLEX pattern, sometimes
referred to as a busy pattern). Moreover, our feature values distinguish such adjectives
EVENT: ((AGENT: she) (VOL +|−))
% Result %
STATEb: AT (OBJ:ideology LOC:prose (COMPLEX +)(EVALUATION +))
STATEe: AT (OBJ:ideology LOC:others)
Fig.4. Interpretation of She let the ideological cat out of her brocaded bag of prose.
from those that, for example, are ‘simple’ (COMPLEX ), such as ‘red, and ‘messy’
(EVALUATION ), such as ‘blotchy.
Interpretation, then, consists of applying these feature values of ‘brocaded’ to the
nominal that the adjective modifies (‘prose’), in the MENTALINTELLECTUAL domain.
If these components are integrated into the basic idiom representation for let the cat out
of the bag, we have for She let the ideological cat out of her brocaded bag of prose
the interpretation in Fig. 4, giving the paraphrase: She did something such that the
ideology in her beautiful, complex prose becomes known to others. It might be
noted that this idiom variation incorporates more semantic complexity than the usual
metaphoric extension from let the cat out of the bag. Usually, a specific utterance or
action causes the revelation; here, the “revelation” is a potential judgment or recognition
made in the course of reading. This recognition is “as if” a secret were being revealed,
perhaps requiring another layer of analysis for a full interpretation. Neither is the layer
of irony perceptible in this expression addressed. However, the metaphoric elements are
basically accounted for.
4 Other Computational Research on Metaphor
The metaphoric basis of our method invites comparison with other computational work
on metaphor. In his “abduction” approach to metaphor, Hobbs [22] proves the coher-
ence of a “Congress” schema and a “baseball” schema that provide the background of
a “novel” metaphoric veto-hit usage. This usage is certainly creative, but Hobbs’ ap-
proach does not address the interpretation of a metaphor that is novel in the sense that
no schema or conventional metaphor is available.
Other approaches, e.g., that of Martin [18] as cited earlier, rely on references to
known, Lakovian conventional metaphors, such as IDEAS ARE FOOD. These approaches,
which exploit, as we do, the invariance of certain basic components such as change of
state, are productive for a large range of metaphoric expressions. However, as in the
case of Hobbs’ theory, they would not succeed for the less prevalent but frequently en-
countered metaphors for which an underlying conventional metaphor or schema cannot
be identified.
In this respect the work of Narayanan [23] and the more recent work of Barnden et
al. [24] is of interest. Narayanan’s implemented use of various crosslinguistic mappings
and Barnden et al.s addition of “view neutral mapping adjuncts” to their metaphor rea-
soning system are theoretically similar to the extensible abstract structures and features
used in the MAP system to define verbs (and predications underlying nouns) in physical
and nonphysical domains. The application of these mappings to idioms is discussed by
Fischer and Chang [25] based on variations of German idioms. Narayanan’s existing
mappings do not appear to be applicable to attributes such as brocaded, while Barnden
et al.s give some attention to the necessary evaluative connotations; in any case, our
three approaches appear to at least partially converge. The latter researchers [26] also
provide techniques that deal with the “interaction” theory of metaphor and target-to-
source influence, as they use contextual information from the target domain to high-
light or confirm properties hypothesized as extended from the source domain. Presum-
ably these methods could help to confirm extensions made from, e.g., brocaded above,
within or outside the context of idiom variations.
Our next task in handling source domain adjectives as idiom variations will focus
on a pilot implementation with a small but diverse vocabulary, with close attention to
generality. For now, our idiom-variation paraphrase system is just “peeking out of the
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